The 1 0 trap

It makes you think there is or isn’t something there.

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Writing as a freeing exercise prior to a technical phone interview

“El Dinosaurio” by Augusto Monterroso

Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí.

That, right up there in italics, is the world’s shortest story. 

When one thinks of writing a story, a short story, or any story whatsoever, we probably do not think of the above.

If we were to write those words, in that order, all of a sudden, we probably would just consider it the first part of something, a sentence that is neither here nor there, maybe even a possible ending. But, a full story? In just ~66 characters? 

Now, I would like you to consider this: Was Monterroso able to create this short story, a complete short story in 10 words,  because the cultural context had developed in such a way that it was accepted by its peers as a short story? Had this story been written by, say, Shakespeare, do you think it would have counted as a short story? What if it had been written by an old Babylonian priest? (Assuming that a Babylonian priest would know what a dinosaur is/was or maybe substituting the word dinosaur by lizard or alligator or some other animal known to such hypothetical priest)

My own, personal, answer is… I don’t know.

One possible way to view reality is via semiotics: the current state of affairs that we call the world is composed of a series of symbols whose meanings change constantly, via paradigm shifts – I am totally abusing Kuhn’s original interpretation – the old symbols being replaced by new ones, and probably becoming a mystery to us, in other words the whole signifier/signified/sign/symbol thing.

I can always play around with the idea that I understand what Leibniz, or Mercator for that matter, meant by infinitesimals, but my mental constructs are already “infected” with other parasites that make the – original – concept of infinitesimals nothing more than philosophical ramblings. I cannot change this. (See also limit)

 Now, I am not saying that it is not possible, all I am saying is that through my experience I have found that it is impossible for me to exactly know what was meant by infinitesimal in Leibniz’s time. What I think I am trying to say is that his contemporaries might have had a clearer grasp of what the concept meant for Leibniz himself than we will ever have. The accumulation of – more accurate, more precise – concepts via science – and, by all means, science is awesome – has created a context that permeates everything else. No way to go back really.

 Can you think of  a way?

Wu

the tale of the late adoption of a smart phone

The previous week was my first with a smart phone. I had never given much thought, to be quite honest, to how it could really affect my life, or anybody else’s for that matter, but I am convinced now that it really does.

The first thing that I noticed is how unused to the post-pc world I am. My own silly example: I still tell my wife that I need to check something on my Mac before going out for dinner. The idea that the content is actually available for me at any time, regardless of where I am, is totally new. When I think about this in the big picture context it actually helps me realize how life changing such a technology might be. As it keeps growing, your own world keeps growing, ie. your context expands, creating new possibilities of life on the go, not just for communication purposes but also for pretty much anything that you can think of. 

Now, I admit, this is pretty old news for 99% of people out there in the US, but it has given me a truly great discovery-like experience that actually feels brand new. I do not feel like I am taking my computer with me everywhere, I used to do that before, that just felt like I could connect anywhere. Now I actually feel like I am connected, because… well, I am connected.  

It might appear totally trivial – and maybe it is – but just think about it for a second. The possibility of being able to connect to the web, it’s services, it’s tools, depends on the availability of certain conditions, each dependent to the physical space. The subway might not be an ideal place to take out your laptop and start typing away, at a really fancy restaurant you might be cast away and frowned upon, at school… cemetery… dinner… &c. The possibility of being able to connect gets reduced by the physical and cultural context. 

This does not happen with a smart phone. In this case, you are already connected; as we know, the difference – although possible to represent in a context of on/off, 0/1 – is abysmal, in the same way that you would rather take a free cheap chocolate instead of buying a really fancy one for $0.50. 

So now I ponder upon the other hidden faces of what it really means…

Connected vs To Connect…

What happens when it reaches the state where to connect is no longer a word/possibility, what happens when connected becomes the new state of affairs?

It makes me think of Wittgenstein’s words: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” What happens when those limits are expanded in this way? 

(Special thanks to Kevin Kelly for writing the book What Technology Wants, which made me reconsider what it was that I actually knew about technology, and helped me see it in a brand new light.)

The Dhalang

Gideon is sitting right next to a friend of his, whom we can call Mitra. We interrupt them in the middle of a conversation; the show had begun some time ago.

“… Arjuna is a prince, one of the Pandava brothers. Krishna, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, is his charioteer,” we hear Mitra say.

The epic develops in front of their eyes; the Dhalang sits behind the white kelir, upon which the shadows of the wayangs are projected by means of the light coming from the blencong. 

“See how each has his own movement and way of speaking. This is the work of the Dhalang. Very clever man, very skilled”

“That’s the puppeteer, right?” asked Gideon.

The shadows keep moving, synched to the sounds of the Gamelan. A certain ethereal ambiance surrounds everything.

“Ah, yes, yes,” answered Mitra, “the Dhalang.”

The dream-like atmosphere feels enhanced by soft clouds of smoke.  We hear the metallic sound of the kepyak right before the Gamelan’s pace changes.

“He makes the voices and moves the wayangs,” we hear Mitra say, “He directs the Gamelan musicians. His job is to make us laugh and cry. Very clever man. The Dhalang is more than a puppeteer.”

After a pause, Mitra added “His skill makes us believe that we see a war between two great armies, but there is no war. There is only the Dhalang.”

 

(With special thanks to Grant Morrison, author of the original dialogue, featured in The Invisibles. January, 1995)

I think I don’t really know what I mean when I say that “Context Matters”…yet.

Context matters sounds like a banal platitude, a cliché, doesn’t it? Well, it might be…. but… as we are reminded by David Foster Wallace in his This is Water speech, sometimes a banal platitude hides the most important truths, truths that become invisible to us. These truths are so present that we forget about them, just like when you’re wearing your  most comfortable clothes.

Daniel Kahneman writes in an article published in December 2003 in the journal The American Economic Review:

Perception is reference-dependent: the perceived attributes of a focal stimulus reflect the contrast between that stimulus and a context of prior and concurrent stimuli.

I stopped reading that article right at that point. A question popped into my mind that I thought required a little bit more than a dictionary-lookup and a Wikipedia search…

What is the difference between reference-dependent and context-dependent?

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